Unpopular Opinions
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Unpopular Opinions

The Tragic Game of Football

Can empathy inhabit the game of football?

Southampton and Leicester fans by Karlo Tasler

“Why do football players always have to show the world who is the best?” Aksel asked. “I mean — houses, cars, ladies… It is like a constant need to show off. It’s a special sort of ego. That one the football players have — me, myself and I.”

“Can we really blame them?” Edo asked.

“Right?” Aksel exclaimed. They have put so much into the game — effort, sacrifice, passion…”

“No, that is not the reason we can’t blame them. In my opinion, none of that is a justification for ego.”

“Why can’t we blame them, then?”

“Let’s put it this way,” Edo started. “Football is the only profession in the world where you can’t be happy if you don’t make somebody else sad.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, exactly like that. All of your success is based on the suffering of your opponent. Just try to realise how bad that sounds,” Edo said and made a point: “In football… Your win, your happiness, includes somebody else’s loss, sadness.”

“Ahh… Ok”

“No empathy there! You can’t be a footballer and have a high level of empathy. Laws of football simply don’t allow you to.”

“Are we talking about ego or empathy here?”

“Well… They are connected. Low empathy means big ego. And vice verse — big empathy means small ego. Empathy encompasses care for others, but obviously, football laws don’t let you care for others because caring for others means allowing them to win. Therefore, if there is no care for others, there is care for yourself only — ego!”

“Right, high ego means low empathy,” Aksel repeated questioningly.

“Exactly. The bigger the stakes are, the lack of empathy rises. Try to revoke some of the Champions League finals to understand what I’m talking about.”

“Chelsea — Bayern, 2012, Allianz Arena!” Aksel recalled.

“Nice one, I like it!”

“Didier Drogba! After a series of misfortune events such as the ghost goal in 2005, a red card in the Moscow final in 2008, and the Øvrebø scandal with Barcelona in 2009, the man, the legend, is standing face to face with Manuel Neuer. One last penalty… If Drogba gets it right, all the suffering from the past will be forgotten, all the wounds will be healed,” Aksel was enjoying himself. “He is putting the ball on the spot, pulling his socks up, not looking at Neuer. Two soft steps and a calm shot! Neatly, steadily, peacefully as you like. The ball goes in one direction, Neuer into the other one. Drogba is over the moon. He is literally in trans, falling into the arms of Petr Čech. The rest of the team is joining as well. They are as happy as they had never been before. They have just reached the peak of their life.”

“Exactly! And now try to remember the scenes in the losing team,” Edo said.

“Remind me.”

“I will remind you. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who just profoundly betrayed his teammates and fans by missing the penalty, is kneeling on the ground, desolated, with the shirt over his face, sobbing. The worst day of his life. The rest of the Bayern team was devastated as well.”

“Actually, I do remember Schweinsteiger being completely soulless,” Aksel confirmed.

“Exactly. But that means one thing only — Drogba did his job right, he made that night at the Allianz Arena the worst night of Schweinsteiger’s life, Edo said. “And that’s the essential reason I said earlier you couldn’t even blame footballers for being egoistic beings.”

“I see…” Aksel said suspiciously. “Laws of the game.”

“Yup!”

“Prove me wrong, Edo, but isn’t that the law of every profession, actually?

“What do you mean?”

“You said that football is the only profession where you have to make your opponent sad for you to be happy.”

“I did say that.”

“But that goes for every other profession as well,” Aksel said. “I have a restaurant in Woolwich, and there is another restaurant 20 meters down the street owned by Arafat.”

“I do like garlic bread your mother bakes, by the way.”

“Thank you, but what I want to say is that I feel happy when a customer enters my restaurant, and not Arafat’s. Even though that makes Arafat sad. I guess that is my hospitality ego,” Aksel concluded. “But in the end, it is about surviving. Ego is about surviving, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Oh, fuck, I just realised — football is life,” Aksel interrupted Edo. “Just a bit magnified form of it. But the laws are the same.”

“Unless…”

“Shit!” Aksel was stunned. “If the law of life is to compete and survive, then you can’t blame any football player for having a big ego, indeed. It is a matter of evolution. Ego wins games. Football is the game of egos.”

“But!” Edo managed to speak. “Let’s not forget that a few times, throughout the history of football, we have witnessed some proper acts of empathy regardless of the final score.”

“What do you mean?”

“Kahn and Canizares! The Champions League final 2001 between Bayern and Valencia at San Siro.”

“Right!” Aksel recalled. “The game of penalties. The game that Bayern clung to after Oliver Kahn saved three penalties in the penalty shootout. And yet in the regular period of the game, both goals came after the penalties.”

“Yeah… That’s the one,” Edo confirmed. “After the penalty shootout, Oliver Kahn stopped celebrating the biggest achievement of his life to help the man on the losing side. He consoled his counterpart, Santiago Canizares, who was kneeling, devastated. He petted him with his glove. I believe only a touch of a glove could help Canizares feel better at that point.

“Glove understands glove,” Aksel concluded.

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Karlo Tasler

Karlo Tasler

Explaining the complexity of life and its various perspectives through the beautiful game of football. Or rather the tragic game of football, so to speak.